We often speak of our spirits, our thoughts or our feelings being in contact with God. But in Eastern Christianity, we also pay attention to our body being in contact with God. What exactly does this mean?
Church tradition teaches us to pray as a whole person, body, spirit and mind together. Contact with God is more than a purely rational experience. This is also true of most things in life that really matter. For example, the bond between a mother and child is a physical one. There are lots of hugs and cuddles and kisses going on all the time. There are smiles and frowns, coos and gurgles, friendly pats and gentle caresses, and the occasional bitten finger when baby mistakes Mum’s thumb for a teething ring.
On a deeper level, there are hormones and nervous system mechanisms that are activated by the mother-child relationship. Mothers of newborn babies have a lot of the hormone oxytocin circulating in their bodies. While this hormone contributes to the changes in their bodies that prepare them for breastfeeding, it has also been shown to have the effect of strengthening the emotional bond between the mother and child. God’s own natural love potion!
When we commune with God, we feel emotions towards God. Emotions are always associated with powerful physical changes. That’s why we also call them, ‘feelings’. We feel the pulse race, the palms sweat, the hair bristle. Bodily emotions too are a way of praising God. St Paul tells us that there are times when we cannot find words to say to God: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). What he may be describing is that prayer full of emotions that are just too deep for words. Emotions express something deeper inside us than ideas, and this too should be laid open to God and shared with Him.
We pray with the mind and heart, but we pray with the body also. Certain bodily actions are prescribed in the rites of the Church that help us to get into the right frame of mind to meet and to worship God. For example, standing while we pray keeps us alert (it’s much harder to fall asleep when you’re up on your feet). Bowing to the ground is a reminder to us of our fall into sin, while standing again reminds us that Christ has forgiven our sins and raised us up with Him. We bow also, as if at the feet of Christ; to wash them with our tears of repentance and dry them lovingly with the hair we had misused in vanity before.
If you find that the Gospel is being read as you enter the Church (naughty, naughty – you’re late!) you are to stay in your place near the door until it is finished, for we do not want unnecessary movement to distract anyone from giving their fullest attention to hearing and absorbing the words of life that are being read. And there are so many more actions, sounds, smells, and sights involved in every single Coptic liturgy, all of which are intended to create a richer experience of worship in which the whole of the person partakes, spirit, mind and body.
Receiving the Holy Body and Precious Blood in our mouths is not only an act of the will and the spirit, but also of the body. We taste, we feel, we smell, we see, and finally, we consume. The physical sensation of this heavenly food entering our bodies accompanies our mental and spiritual experience of being united with Christ and makes it all the more vivid. Having fasted for at least nine hours, our bodies are hungry and weak. Receiving the Body and Blood, followed by refreshing water naturally revives our bodies, satisfies our hunger and quenches our thirst. All these are once again physical analogies for our spiritual experience of the Eucharist: our unity with Christ revives spirits that have been stumbling under the burden of sin, and satisfies the deep hunger and thirst in our lonely souls for God.
Once having received this miraculous gift, we ought to feel more than ever that our bodies are the temple of God, a living tabernacle for the Life-Giving Creator. We strive to preserve this feeling for as long as we can after Holy Communion. For example, there is an ancient Church tradition that one should not bow to the ground once s/he has received Communion. How can I make Christ (in me) bow? That is why it is permissible to bow before receiving the Body, but not before receiving the Blood – having received the Body of Christ bowing is no longer appropriate. The same reasoning lies behind other traditions such as keeping Sunday as the Lord’s Day. Better to spend the day in activities that will help me preserve the sense of the presence of Christ in me so far as possible rather than waste the day in entertainments that might distract me from this beautiful truth or perhaps even tumble me back into the arms of sin.
Indeed, each of the sacraments of the Church also has a very ‘physical’ component to it, a means of involving the whole person, including the body, in its blessing and effects. But it is not only in formal or sacramental settings that the body is involved in the meeting with God. St Paul frequently uses the analogy of an athlete to represent our spiritual struggle more generally:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 2Timothy 4:7
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified. 1Corinthians 9:24-27
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. 2Timothy 4:7,8
He was thinking of athletes who competed in games similar to our modern Olympics, but when I read those verses, I must confess I am sometimes drawn to contemplate some of our more modern sports. Schools know the value of sports in developing not only healthy young bodies, but also healthy young minds, social skills and leadership skills. There are some stunning images of spiritual effort in these sports; courage, perseverance, cooperation, loyalty, unselfishness, self-sacrifice … the list is long. Perhaps one day I shall have a go at a blog about the spiritual messages to be gleaned from cricket, rugby league, soccer and golf…